African countries should maintain strong surveillance, case finding and testing among other control measures to halt COVID-19, as they begin to ease lockdowns and open their economies, the World Health Organization Africa Department said on Thursday.
“National and regional lockdowns have helped to slow down the spread of COVID, but it remains a considerable public health threat,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa. “Lockdowns are being eased in some parts of Africa, but we cannot just revert back to how things were before the outbreak. If governments abruptly end these measures, we risk losing the gains countries have made so far against COVID-19.”
Dr Moeti spoke at the WHO Africa Media Leader virtual press conference with the support of the World Economic Forum. The other speakers were Hon. Dr Zwelini Mkhize, Minister of Health of South Africa and Professor Kojo Ansah Koram, Epidemiologist, Former Director Noguchi Memorial Research Institute.
At least 36 000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 1500 deaths have been recorded in Africa. So far there are 11 000 cases in West and Central Africa, and 300 people have died. In the week of 13 April, cases increased by 113% in Central Africa and 42% in West Africa, according to the WHO.
Africa has so far been spared an explosion in COVID-19 case numbers. Prompt action by governments to implement lockdowns and physical distancing, alongside effective public health measures to test, trace and treat have slowed down the spread of the virus, WHO said.
The first country to implement a lockdown in the WHO African Region was Rwanda on 21 March, since then 11 countries have followed. A further 10 have instituted partial lockdowns of cities or high risk communities.
Preliminary data indicate that countries that implemented nationwide lockdowns found that the weekly increase in the number of new cases fell significantly from a 67% rise in the first week after the lockdown to a 27% rise in the second week. Furthermore, the initial analysis indicates that countries which implemented partial and targeted lockdowns along with effective public health measures may have been even more effective at slowing down the virus.
“We are still analysing the data. If further research corroborates our initial findings that targeted lockdowns, based on data and accompanied by public health measures contribute to flattening the COVID-19 curve, this could help balance the huge social costs of these measures for countries,” said Dr Moeti.
Countries are now starting to relax their confinement measures. Ghana was the first to lift its partial lockdown in Accra and Kumasi. However, other restrictions are in place, and the government has stressed that the end of the lockdown does not mean the end of the pandemic. While some essential businesses are being opened, mass gatherings are still not permitted and restrictions on the number of passengers on public transport services remain in place.
The government is continuing to monitor events in COVID-19 hotspots and has stated it will re-establish localized lockdowns if needed. Ghana is also averaging around 30 COVID-19 tests per 10,000 people per day – the highest in West Africa. South Africa is also considering easing its confinement measures and has scaled up its testing efforts. Despite progress on testing for COVID-19, countries in the WHO African region are averaging nine tests per 10 000 people.
WHO said it is working to improve testing capacity by shipping a further round of test kits to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The Organization is working to replenish supplies and in the past two weeks has brought personal protective equipment and other crucial equipment to countries across Africa in partnership with the World Food Programme, the African Union, the Africa Centres for Disease Control, the Government of Ethiopia and the Jack Ma Foundation.